linguistic racism

What is linguistic racism?

Of course, racism is such an emotive word, we need to use it cautiously. “Bias” and “racism” share many similarities. I believe that even the most fair-minded of us are biased to some degree – it’s an inevitable consequence of our life experiences. But racism takes it a step further by introducing the notion of “superiority.”

When we’re talking about the English language specifically, linguistic racism is the perception that native speakers (NS) are superior to non-native speakers (NNS), that an idea or opinion expressed in “broken'”English is inferior to one expressed in “perfect” English. In its most extreme forms linguistic racism leads to bullying, shaming and exclusion, simply because of a person’s  foreign-accented English.

There is also a perception among some British, Americans and Australians that when communication breaks down, it is solely the fault of the international speaker … “I’m a native English speaker; therefore, the problem cannot be mine. It must be yours.”

We often believe that since “everyone speaks English,” there is a level playing field. But how do those who speak English as a second (or third) language feel?

It’s true that English is the lingua franca of global business, science and the internet. There are approximately 2 billion English speakers in the world, but 75% of these speak English as a foreign language. As a NS (born and educated in the UK) I am very much in the minority. The reality is that English is not my language – the nature of English is changing. Pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar have been adapted as English reflects the first languages of international speakers. English as a lingua franca may now be spoken with a Spanish twist, an Italian rhythm, or a Japanese lilt.

Twenty years ago, for many NNS’s, having English on your resume / CV was something to be proud of. Today, for anyone serious about pursuing an international career, competence in English is simply expected.

NNS’s are not arguing against English being the world’s lingua franca. They acknowledge that English is the logical choice. But they do feel aggrieved when NS’s lack empathy for the challenges they face, and make no allowances for the fact that they are communicating in a foreign language.

Our research shows frequents complaints of feeling sidelined and overlooked in meetings (whether intentionally or not), of being interrupted and not being given sufficient time to express their points of view.

This has been referred to as “linguistic ostracism.” And of course, if certain employees are not being heard or taken seriously because of their accented English, then we are all the poorer.

And the problem is becoming greater still as we move away from in-person communication towards more and more remote communication. For the NNS, communicating on a platform like Zoom is considerably more difficult. So much of communication is about facial expressions and body language and these disappear from view during a voice-only call (even on a video call the gestures are much harder to read than during an in-person encounter). We have been honing our face-to-face communication skills for 10,000 years. The recent move to remote communication requires a completely different sets of skills and best practices (but that’s a subject for another blog!)

What are some of the things even well-meaning native English Speakers do to make things harder for their colleagues?

In our research with over 1,000 NNS’s, we found that 88% find it more difficult to communicate with NS’s than with other NNS’s.  It seems native English speakers typically don’t know how to adjust their English for their audience . They speak too fast and use complicated grammar and idiomatic language. They don’t do it intentionally, but they do it nevertheless.

But perhaps more troubling still is that there is plenty of research which shows that NS’s regard NNS’s as ‘less trustworthy, less intelligent and less successful’, simply because of their accented English. We need to work harder to process accented English and our brains then shift the blame for this extra effort onto the veracity of the speaker.

As the psycholinguist Dr Shiri Lev-Ari (University of London) puts it: “We’re less likely to believe something if it’s said with a foreign accent.”

It is staggering to me that these issues are ignored in almost all current Diversity and Inclusion training.

What are some practical ways to help level the playing field?

An employer’s first course of action should be to carry out research with their NNS’s to determine the precise nature and size of the issue within their organization.

The next stage is appropriate training for the NS’s to:

  • Learn how to filter and adapt their English when communicating with NNS’s.
  • Become more empathetic to the challenges faced by their international colleagues and customers.
  • Change any unconscious bias they have that their opinion somehow matters more because they can say it in ‘perfect’ English.

Being a great remote teammate means adopting a mindset where we’re not just thinking about the job we have, but of those we work alongside…even if they’re miles or even continents away. Find out more about how you can develop that mindset on your team.

About the author

Paul StevensPaul StevensCEO, Mayflower College, Plymouth, UK

Paul has been involved in English language training and testing for the past 30 years, specializing in Aviation English. His latest project is SayWhat? which looks at the communication process “from the other side”; how native-English speakers need to filter and simplify their English and have a better understanding of the challenges faced by ESL speakers.

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